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“Apocalyptic Sectarianism”: The Theology at Work in Critiques of Catholic Radicals

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 March 2013

Benjamin Peters
University of Saint Joseph


This article examines contemporary critiques of Dorothy Day and other Catholic radicals that portray them as world-denying sectarians. Such critiques are then traced back to earlier ones made against American Catholic radicals during the years surrounding World War II, suggesting that all of these critiques stem from important shared theological claims held by both contemporary critics and their neo-Thomists predecessors. But such depictions are a caricature of the radical Christianity put forth by Day and others. I argue that far from denigrating human nature and history, Day and other radicals sought engagement with American society and culture that was neither an outright rejection nor a blanket affirmation. Rather, it was a form of ongoing and critical engagement in light of one's ultimate destiny. Thus Catholic radicals present an approach to social engagement which seeks to discern what is holy in American life and to perfect or abandon what is not.

Copyright © The College Theology Society 2012

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1 O'Brien, David, “The Pilgrimage of Dorothy Day,” Commonweal, December 19, 1980, 1115Google Scholar. O'Brien has half-jokingly remarked that in all his significant body of scholarship, this sentence is perhaps the most frequently cited.

2 Fisher, James T., The Catholic Counterculture in America: 1933–1962 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 19Google Scholar.

3 Curran, Charles, American Catholic Social Ethics: Twentieth-Century Approaches (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), 130Google Scholar.

4 Fisher, , Catholic Counterculture, 60, 69Google Scholar. It is helpful to remember that “Jansenism” is a technical term which refers specifically to the five propositions condemned in 1653 by Pope Innocent X in Cum occasione: “1. Some of God's precepts are impossible to the just, who wish and strive to keep them, according to the present powers which they have; the grace, by which they are made possible, is also wanting. 2. In the state of fallen nature one never resists interior grace. 3. In order to merit or demerit in the state of fallen nature, freedom from necessity is not required in man, but freedom from external compulsion is sufficient. 4. The Semipelagians admitted the necessity of a prevenient interior grace for each act, even for the beginning of faith; and in this they were heretics, because they wished this grace to be such that the human will could either resistor obey. 5. It is Semipelagian to say that Christ died or shed His blood for all men without exception” (Denzinger, Heinrich, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, trans. Deferrari, Roy J. [St. Louis: Herder, 1957], 10921096Google Scholar).

5 McCarraher, Eugene B., “The Church Irrelevant: Paul Hanly Furfey and the Fortunes of American Catholic Radicalism,” Religion and American Culture 7 (1997): 163–94CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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7 Ibid., 246.

8 Weigel, George, Tranquilitatis Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 150Google Scholar.

9 Weigel wrote that Day “believed that the radicalism of love ignores time, and thus the world's demands in history—even under Hitler” (ibid., 151).

10 Curran, , American Catholic Social Ethics, 130Google Scholar.

11 Ibid., 163.

12 Ibid., 143, 165.

13 Ibid., 168.

14 Ibid., 158 (italics added).

15 Heyer, Kristen, Prophetic & Public: The Social Witness of U.S. Catholicism (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2006), 90Google Scholar.

16 Ibid., 70.

17 Ibid., 76.

18 To support and justify this claim, Heyer quotes Curran: “traditional Catholic theology and ecclesiology cannot be consistently radical” (ibid., 90; italics added).

19 Ibid., 59.

20 Gaillardetz also includes David Schindler and John Milbank in this group. See Gaillardetz, Richard, “Ecclesiological Foundations of Modern Catholic Social Teaching,” in Modern Catholic Social Teaching: Commentaries and Interpretations, ed. Himes, Kenneth R. (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press 2004), [7298Google Scholar, at 77.

21 Ibid., 78.

22 Ibid., 77–78.

23 Gaillardetz notes that this approach is the one taken by “the majority of Catholic moral theologians and ecclesiologists in North America” (ibid, 79).

24 “Spirituality More Easily Found in the World than in Churches,” interview with Dreyer, Elizabeth by Winter, Art, National Catholic Reporter, 13 December 1996, 910Google Scholar.

25 A concise description of this sacramental approach is provided in Himes, Kenneth and Himes's, Michael influential book, Fullness of Faith: The Public Significance of Theology (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1993)Google Scholar.

26 According to the Himeses, the Church's sacraments are points at which “the depth of the secular is uncovered and revealed as grounded in grace” (ibid., 82). Dreyer contended that the purpose of the Church and its sacraments is to “name, symbolize and celebrate the grace we encounter in the world” (“Spirituality More Easily Found,” 9).

27 Himes, , Fullness of Faith, 84Google Scholar; Heyer, Prophetic & Public, xix.

28 For instance, Rahner described the Church's preaching as “the awakening and making explicit what is already there in the depths of man, not by nature but by grace” (Rahner, Karl, Nature and Grace: Dilemmas in the Modern Church, trans. Wharton, Dinah [New York: Sheed and Ward, 1964], 134Google Scholar).

29 Hütter, Reinhard, “The Ruins of Discontinuity,” First Things, January 2011, Scholar.

30 Gilkey, Langdon, “Symbol, Meaning, and Divine Presence,” Theological Studies 35 (1974): 261CrossRefGoogle Scholar, quoted in Himes, , Fullness of Faith, 83Google Scholar.

31 Murray, John Courtney SJ, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1960), 175–96Google Scholar.

32 Komonchak, Joseph, “John Courtney Murray and the Redemption of History: Natural Law and Theology” in John Courtney Murray & The Growth of Tradition, ed. Hooper, J. Leon SJ, and Whitmore, Todd David (Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1996), 6081Google Scholar, at 74.

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34 Ibid., 184.

35 Murray titled his section on eschatological humanism “Contempt of the World” (ibid., 189).

36 Ibid., 186.

37 Heyer, (Prophetic & Public, 64)Google Scholar suggests that J. Bryan Hehir represented this “incarnational humanist” approach.

38 This helpful definition of the “two-tiered” approach to nature and grace is from Bauerschmidt, Frederick Christian, “Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic: Five Theses Related to Theological Anthropology,” Communio 31 (Spring 2004): 6784Google Scholar, at 70. It should be noted, though, that a growing number of scholars are attempting to nuance claims of the degree to which this dualism existed in Catholic theology. See, e.g., McInerny, Ralph, Praeambula fidei: Thomism and the God of the Philosophers (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2006)Google Scholar; Feingold, Lawrence, The Natural Desire to See God According to St. Thomas Aquinas and His Interpreters (Ave Maria, FL: Sapientia Press, 2010)Google Scholar. For more on these scholars, see Portier, William L., “Thomist ResurgenceCommunio 35 (Fall 2008): 494504Google Scholar.

39 Gerald McCool described this form of neo-Thomism as relying heavily on the tradition of commentaries on Aquinas and so labeled it “traditional Thomism” distinct from the “transcendental Thomism” of Joseph Maréchal or the “historical Thomism” of Étienne Gilson. McCool referred to advocates of this traditional Thomism as “Cajetanian Thomists” after the influential sixteenth-century Dominican commentator Cajetan (Tommaso de Vio, 1469–1534). See McCool, Gerald, Catholic Theology in the Nineteenth-Century: The Quest for a Unitary Method (New York: Seabury, 1977), 257–59Google Scholar.

40 de Lubac, Henri, Surnaturel: Etudes historiques (1946; Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1991)Google Scholar. The argument that Cajetan played a central role in the Thomistic tradition which eventually led to the two-tiered neo-Thomism of the early twentieth-century was prominently made by de Lubac in Surnaturel. But de Lubac's historical analysis has been challenged recently by the self-described “Ressourcement Thomists,” many of whom have sought to distinguish the form of Thomism rooted in Cajetan's commentaries and that of Francisco Suarez, SJ (1548–1617) in the seventeenth-century. They argue that it was “Suarezarian Thomism” that promoted the more two-tiered approach that many in the twentieth-century, including de Lubac, criticized. Such a distinction is important for “Ressourcement Thomists” because they wish to read Aquinas through commentaries like those of Cajetan and John of St. Thomas, and so seek to salvage these Dominican Thomists from de Lubac's critique. In this sense, these early twenty-first century Thomists are similar to their early twentieth-century counterparts, in that both groups read Thomas “forward” through commentaries. And both groups, therefore, differ from the reading of Aquinas made by de Lubac and others who read the Angelic Doctor “back” through the Christian tradition to the Fathers. For more on “Ressourcement Thomism,” see Hütter, Reinhard and Levering, Matthew, eds., Ressourcement Thomism (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2010)Google Scholar. While certainly important, these distinctions are somewhat secondary to the fact that such two-tiered theology had very real implications for Catholicism in the early twentieth-century.

41 See Furfey, Paul Hanly, Fire on the Earth (New York: Macmillan Company, 1943)Google Scholar. This was one of the main themes of the Hugo retreat which was embraced by Day and other Catholic Workers in the 1940s and 1950s.

42 Day, Dorothy, The Long Loneliness (New York: Harper & Row, 1952)Google Scholar.

43 For a discussion of the efforts at ressourcement made by American Catholic radicals to justify their theology within the Christian tradition, particularly among earlymodern spiritual writers, see Peters, Benjamin, “John Hugo and an American Catholic Theology of Nature and Grace” (Ph.D. diss., University of Dayton, 2011)Google Scholar.

44 For descriptions of the effect this once dominant theological per spective had on American Catholicism at the time, see Gleason, Philip, Contending with Modernity: Catholic Higher Education in the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995)Google Scholar; Halsey, William, The Survival of American Innocence: Catholicismin the Era of Disillusionment, 1920-1940 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1980)Google Scholar.

45 Connor, Joseph J. SJ, “The Catholic Conscientious Objector,” The Ecclesiastical Review 108 (February 1943): 125–38Google Scholar.

46 Ibid., 127.

47 For an account of these pre-war Catholic discussions see Portier, William L., “‘Good Friday in December,’ World War II in the Editorials of Preservation of the Faith Magazine, 1939–1945,” U.S. Catholic Historian 27/2 (Spring 2009): 2544CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

48 Connor, , “The Catholic Conscientious Objector,” 126Google Scholar.

49 Connor described one of these positions as arguing for the impossibility of a modern just war, while the other stance held that World War II in particular did not meet the just-war criteria (ibid, 130–35).

50 Ibid., 136.

51 Connor pointed out (ibid., 127) that adherents of this position often cited “ecclesiastical supporters” such as German exiled theologian Franziscus Stratmann, OP, British theologians Gerald Vann, OP and W.E. Orchard, and Catholic University of America faculty members Msgr. Barry O'Toole and John K. Ryan, SJ. However, after the start of World War II only Orchard still wrote in defense of this position in The Catholic Worker.

52 Ibid., 129.

53 Ibid., 130.

54 Ibid., 136.

55 Molinos was a Spanish priest who promoted an exaggerated form of quiet prayer or acquired contemplation which could lead to a state of pure love. Some of Molinos' followers claimed that once in this state, a person no longer needed the sacraments and did not have the resist the temptation to sin. In 1687, Pope Innocent XI censured sixty-eight propositions from Molinos' writings in the bull Coelestis Pastor. For a concise and helpful account of this controversy and its long legacy, see Portier, William L. and Talar, C.J.T., “The Mystical Element of the Modernist Crisis,” in Modernists & Mystics, ed. Talar, C.J.T. (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2009), 122Google Scholar.

56 For an account of the long-ranging ramifications that the relatively isolated seventeenth-century controversy surrounding Quietism in France had on Catholictheology as a whole, see de Certeau, Michel, The Mystic Fable, volume 1: The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, trans. Smith, Michael B. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992)Google Scholar.

57 For a broader discussion of the political implications of this two-tiered theology and its critics, see Bernardi, Peter, Maurice Blondel, Social Catholicism, & Action Française (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2009)Google Scholar.

58 See Hugo, John, Nature and the Supernatural: A Defense of the Evangelical Ideal (duplicated by the author, 1949)Google Scholar.

59 Himes, , Fullness of Faith, 80Google Scholar.

60 Bauerschmidt, , “Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic,” 77Google Scholar.

61 T.C. O'Brien, OP, a translator and editor of the Blackfriars edition of the Summa theologiae, described this inherent insufficiency as an “innate defectibility” which Aquinas recognized as stemming from human nature's “composition.” O'Brien explained that for Aquinas, the loss of the supernatural gift of original justice which resulted from the fall left human nature to “itself, but forlorn.” See Aquinas, Thomas, Summa theologiae [ST], vol. 26 [1a2ae. 8185]Google Scholar, Original Sin, trans. O'Brien, T.C. (London: Eyer & Spottiswoode/New York: McGraw, 1965), 157–58Google Scholar [= the Blackfriars edition].

62 For an historical summary of how these various distinctions of grace have been understood within the tradition, see Lonergan, Bernard SJ, Grace and Freedom (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971)Google Scholar.

63 Thomas Aquinas, ST I, q. 1, a. 8, ad 2, in Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 3 vols. (New York: Benzinger Bros., 1948), 1:6Google Scholar [= the English Dominicans edition].

64 de Lubac, Henri, The Mystery of the Supernatural, trans. Sheedy, Rosemary (1965; reprint, New York: Crossroad, 1998), 76Google Scholar.

65 This was the argument made not only by de Lubac, in Surnaturel (1946)Google Scholar but also by American Catholic radicals like Furfey in Fire on the Earth (New York: Macmillian Company, 1943)Google Scholar and Hugo, John, Applied Christianity (New York: The Catholic Worker Press, 1944)Google Scholar.

66 Heyer, , Prophetic & Public, 119–75Google Scholar.

67 Portier, William L., “Here Come the Evangelical Catholics,” Communio 31 (Spring 2004): 3566Google Scholar.

68 Bauerschmidt, , “Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic,” 73Google Scholar.

69 Thomas Aquinas, ST I q. 1, a. 8, ad 2, in the Blackfriars edition, vol. 1 [1a. 1]: Christian Theology, trans. Gilby, Thomas (London: Eyer & Spottiswoode/New York: McGraw, 1964), 30Google Scholar. Reference is also made to Aquinas, ST I q. 2, a. 2, ad 2: fides praesupponit cognitionem naturalem, sicut gratia naturam, et ut perfectio perfectible (Blackfriars edition, vol. 2 [1a. 2–11]: Existence and Nature of God, trans. McDermott, Timothy [London: Eyer & Spottiswoode/New York: McGraw, 1964], 10Google Scholar).

70 Summa Theologica [English Dominicans edition], 1:6Google Scholar; Summa theologiae [Blackfriars edition], 1:31Google Scholar.

71 Schenk, Richard, “Analogy as the discrimen naturae et gratiae: Thomism and Ecumenical Learning,” in The Analogy of Being: Invention of the Antichrist or Wisdom of God?, ed. White, Thomas Joseph (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011), 172–91Google Scholar, at 190.

72 Rahner described this need that marks human nature: “We can only fully understand man in his ‘undefinable’ essence if we see him as potentia obedienialis for the divine life; this is his nature. His nature is such that its absolute fulfillment comes through grace, and so nature of itself must reckon with the meaningful possibility of remaining without absolute fulfillment” (Rahner, Karl, Nature and Grace, trans. Wharton, Dinah [New York: Sheed and Ward, 1964], 140Google Scholar).

73 Baxter, Michael, “Notes on Catholic Americanism and Catholic Radicalism: Toward a Counter-Tradition of Catholic Social Ethics,” in American Catholic Traditions: Resources for Renewal, ed. Mize, Sandra Yocum and Portier, William, College Theology Society Annual Volume 42 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997), 5371Google Scholar, at 64.

74 Day, , Long Loneliness, 149Google Scholar.

75 At various points in her story, Day noted the suicides and depression within radical community following the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927. See especially the end of Part I.

76 Ibid., 63.

78 Ibid., 116.

79 Ibid., 148.

80 Ibid., 138.

81 Ibid., 132.

82 Ibid., 116. “I have always felt that it was life with him [Forster] that brought me natural happiness, that brought me to God” (ibid., 134).

83 She wrote, “To become a Catholic meant for me to give up a mate with whom I was much in love. It got to the point where it was a simple question of whether I chose God or man” (ibid, 145).

84 Ibid., 256.

85 Mize, Sandra Yocum, “‘We Are Still Pacifists': Dorothy Day's Pacifism During World War II,” in Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement: Centenary Essays, ed. Thorn, William, Runkel, Phillip, and Mountin, Susan, Marquette Studies in Theology (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2001), 465–73Google Scholar, at 472.

86 Day wrote that she preferred the term “libertarian” as less offensive than “anarchist” (The Long Loneliness, 267).

87 Ibid., 256.

88 Parente, Pascal, “Nature and Grace in Ascetical Theology,” American Ecclesiastical Review 137 (1943): 430–37Google Scholar; Connell, Francis J., “Review of Applied Christianity, by John J. Hugo,” American Ecclesiastical Review 139 (1945): 6972Google Scholar; Fenton, Joseph Clifford, “Nature and the Supernatural Life,” American Ecclesiastical Review 140 (1946): 5468Google Scholar. Hugo replied to these critiques in Nature and the Supernatural: A Defense of the Evangelic Ideal (published by the author, 1949).

89 Hugo, , “Catholics Can Be Conscientious Objectors,” The Catholic Worker, May 1943Google Scholar. The second part of this article appeared in the June 1943 edition of The Catholic Worker.

90 Hugo articulated the theological vision of the retreat in Applied Christianity (New York: The Catholic Worker Press, 1944)Google Scholar. For more on Hugo and the retreat, see Peters, Benjamin, “Nature and Grace in the Theology of John Hugo,” in God, Grace & Creation, ed. Rossi, Philip, College Theology Society Annual Volume 55 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010): 5978Google Scholar; and Downey, Jack, “The Strong Meat of the Gospel: ‘Lacouturisme’ and the Revival of Ascetism in North America,” American Catholic Studies 122/4 (Winter 2011):122Google Scholar. Brigid O'Shea Merriman also has an excellent chapter on the retreat movement in Searching for Christ: The Spirituality of Dorothy Day (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), 131–69Google Scholar.

91 Day, , The Long Loneliness, 250Google Scholar.